Wednesday, December 24, 2014

“In his name all oppression shall cease.”

“In his name all oppression shall cease.”
Carol: “O Holy Night” – Translated from the French by John S. Dwight (1813-1893)
Tune: CANTIQUE DE NOEL (Adolphe Adam)

Oppression, slavery, mistreatment, abuses of all kinds. If I had one wish for every new year, it would be the cessation of all these. In other words, I guess my desire – my prayer – would be for peace, just like the angels promised.

These are the kinds of things that I can actively eliminate from my own habit-cycle, but I can’t seem to do much about it outside my own little piece of the globe. I can give to organizations that seek to eradicate these from people-groups, I can stand up for human rights, I can elect leaders who join me in my concern… but CAN all oppression cease?

I have to believe that it can, and that the infusion of the Spirit of Christ into the hearts and minds of the offenders is indeed capable of wiping out cruelty and subjugation wherever it raises its ugly head… or hides itself behind conventional facades. Not only is his name wonderful, it is also powerful – and freeing.

We started the Advent season with "O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive [people of all kinds] who wait in lonely exile." Before we step into Epiphany - to all those who fall into this category, I want to say with confidence: “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee.”

UCLA Choir Sings This Carol

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

“Fall on your knees.”

“Fall on your knees.”
Carol: “O Holy Night” –Translated from the French by John S. Dwight (1813-1893)
Tune: CANTIQUE DE NOEL (Adolphe Adam)

“Fall on your knees” is a call-to-worship, and to me it is in an interesting context; it seems to be stronger than “kneel” or “bow down.” It seems to be more of a reflexive action… one we do before we realize what we’ve done!

I’m a movie-lover, and two scenes from fairly recent films come to mind: 1) SAVING PRIVATE RYAN when the mother gets word that her sons have been killed in battle, and 2) MICHAEL CLAYTON when Tilda Swinton realizes her undoing. In both these cases, the women fall to their knees in shock; in our case, it would be awe. Upon realizing we are in the presence of a holy God, our reflex might be to fall to our knees without thinking it through: “Now should I raise my hands, should I bow my head, should I dance, should I be still?” Without any contemplation, we react in a way appropriate to our own expression, uncaring or unaware of anyone else’s reaction.

Whatever your natural, unbridled, child-like response, let it happen during this Epiphany season. If it’s as extreme as falling on your knees or prostrate (face down, arms spread) or standing still, let it be your honest, open response to the arrival of Emmanuel. It is an event worthy of your authentic worship response.

Susan Boyle Sings This Carol

Monday, December 22, 2014

“His law is love, and his gospel is peace.”

“His law is love, and his gospel is peace.”
Carol: “O Holy Night” –Translated from the French by John S. Dwight (1813-1893)
Tune: CANTIQUE DE NOEL (Adolphe Adam)

When the grown-up Jesus said, “Love one another,” it was not a suggestion; it was a command – a law, if you please. He had every expectation that his followers would live up to this directive.

With our government’s laws, for most of us these have become second nature. Because we were taught them in driver’s ed, the laws of the road stuck with us: we observe the speed limit (for the most part!), we signal before we turn, we maintain a safe distance behind the car in front of us, etc. We are instinctively law-abiding citizens; following the rules has become one of our characteristics.

So it should be with this mandate from Christ. “Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love, and his gospel is peace.” When loving our fellow-humans becomes our inherent behavior, we will have begun to obey this law, and in turn, we will have become more Christ-like. In reality, we will also be happier people because we will be living out the gospel of peace.

We have our orders. It is our duty as an FOJ* to follow through.

This Carol Sung by Michael Fawcett

                                                                         * - If you’re new to this blog, that’s a “Follower of Jesus.”

Friday, December 19, 2014

“He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger.”

Carol: “O Holy Night” –Translated from the French by John S. Dwight (1813-1893)
Tune: CANTIQUE DE NOEL (Adolphe Adam)

We continue our week with “O Holy Night.” I hope you won’t tire of my breaking this one apart!

Identification. When you list the attributes of Christ, you may overlook this one, but the fact is that part of his mission to earth was to identify with those whom his Father had created. His having walked several hundred miles in our shoes made it possible for him – even now in his glorified state – to empathize with us human pilgrims.

I think I understand the concept of Christ having knowledge of my needs even before I voice them; that has been drilled into me from my earliest days of neediness. However, I am struck in this carol by the line “to our weakness (Christ) is no stranger.” I’m more familiar with “I am weak, but thou art strong,” but THAT is looking at this from a different perspective. Being no stranger to my weaknesses points out this identification attribute. He does not stand to the side as the strong silent type and wonder what I’m facing; he stands inside, seeing it from my perspective and whispers, “I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there.”

So, my fellow needy weak friends, the name Emmanuel can take on a deeper meaning for us during these days leading up to Christmas. Christ truly is WITH us in all our struggles.

Carol Sung by Home Free

Thursday, December 18, 2014

“Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we.”

“Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we.”
Carol: “O Holy Night” –Translated from the French by John S. Dwight (1813-1893)
Tune: CANTIQUE DE NOEL (Adolphe Adam)

This carol by a French poet and French composer was translated into English by an American Unitarian music critic just before the Civil War. That’s the background.

I thought this one was appropriate for this blog since it includes the word “hymn.”

One of the reasons I have a lot of trouble doing hymnlines regularly during the Advent/Christmas season is because so many traditional carols simply deal with events and characters from the first Christmas; you can only expound so much on angel appearances, magi arrivals and over-crowded cities with hay-filled cattle stalls.

“Sweet… joy… grateful” – wonderful words that sum up this season, don’t you think? We join in a grateful chorus to express our hymns of joy… our SWEET hymns of joy. Nothing saccharin about this kind of carol-singing… no Splenda, only splendid music! There is, in other words, no substitute for music that bubbles forth from the lips of children and child-like adults who celebrate their faith through song.

Queued at the register at Target, bustled about in the shopping mall, harped on by some church Scrooge: in all these situations, I hear the voice of Hedy (my mother) saying, “Now Ronald George, you be sweet.” Mustering all that is within me, I try to obey that long-ago-spoken directive.

Need a lift during the next seven days? Raise a song. Lift a carol. Be grateful. Be sweet!

A grand chorus sings this carol

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

“Order all things far and nigh.”

Hymn: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” - Latin hymn

We often make light of folks with OCD (Obsessive-compulsive disorder). In television shows and on film, they’re the ones who are lining up every object on their desk and re-placing anything that anyone else adjusts. It is fertile ground to elicit a laugh. However, the people we know who “suffer” from this disorder do not find it a laughing matter.

Those of us on the other end of the spectrum – who do not live by the axiom “a place for everything and everything in its place” – probably appreciate this hymnline more than those who are by nature orderly. I will not name names!

During these weeks leading up to Christmas, many of us would be happy enough if some orderliness came to our schedules… our calendars!

 “All things should be done decently and order,” Paul says. (I Corinthians 14:40) This quote comes after a long discussion of expressing one’s self in public worship, but it gets at a nagging desire in most of us.

One of the things most of us crave is orderliness in our lives. The people of Israel believed that one of the things Messiah would do is straighten things out – bring order to the chaos. Though Christ did that (and continues to do that), he didn’t necessarily do it in the way they envisioned… or the way you and I think he should!

Is your life out of order? Forget your desk-top or your work area – we’re talking deeper issues here. If so, make this hymnline one of your Advent prayers, imploring the soon-to-arrive Christ to bring order to your personal chaos. With your cooperation (availability and flexibility), he can. After all, he already knows about all our clutter.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O ones who order lack!

This Hymn Sung by Pentatonics
(Does not include this hymnline!)

Monday, December 8, 2014

“With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead, O Lord, to see the day of earth’s redemption that sets your people free.”

“With hearts and hands uplifted, we plead, O Lord, to see the day of earth’s redemption that sets your people free.”
Hymn: “Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers” – Laurentius Laurenti (1660-1722)
Tune: HAF TRONES LMAPA FARDIG (Swedish folk tune)

“Pleading” is a word we use for crying out in desperation. It is an end-of-my-rope kind of crying out – the kind of language we use when we have nowhere else to turn.

In this hymnline, we assume the posture of worship (“with hearts and hands uplifted”) to make a distress call to the throne of God, begging for the kind of redemption that sets people free… all people everywhere, whatever their imprisonment.

The Old Testament believers looked forward to a coming monarch who would rule on their behalf and give preference to the people of God. Their awaiting was for an earthly leader… a hero, if you will. We Post-New Testament Christians are looking forward to the return of Christ; however, we know from Scripture that his leadership style did not include warring and domination. Therefore, we anticipate his grace-filled redemptive intervention to (among other actions) unlock various kinds of prison doors.

If you’ve read these blogposts for a while, you know that Carlita and I support a couple of mission efforts whose sole purpose is to free people from enslavement… especially women and children. One of these is International Justice Mission (  Large non-profit organizations like this are putting feet to the desperate pleas for the freedom of others.

At the end of our ropes, we continue our anxious plea for all who know no freedom - only bondage and oppression - fully believing that this is ONE of the many miracles the Lord Christ will bring in his ever-loving hand.

Meanwhile, we should be about our Father’s business, doing what WE can to see that such cruel persecution might come to an end. Hearts and hands uplifted... feet and funds on the move!

A High School Academy Sings This Hymn

Friday, December 5, 2014

“You came not in a splendor bright as monarch, but as humble child.”

“You came not in a splendor bright as monarch, but as humble child.”
Carol: “Creator of the Stars of Night” – 9th Century

In my years of doing full-time music ministry, two of the choral pieces I often used at Christmas concerts were “No Golden Carriage” and “How Should a King Come?” The texts of both dealt with Christ’s arrival being unlike that of most kings: little fanfare, no big public celebration, no fancy clothes, toys or parades.

This line from a truly ancient advent carol gets at the same theme – the child of humble beginnings. We use that phrase a lot to describe great politicians and business-people – those who “pulled themselves up by the bootstraps” (whatever that means) and became great leaders and visionaries. So it was to some extent with Jesus.

His rise to leadership and greatness was by divine design… prophet-foretold, Israel anticipated. Those prophecies and expectations were for more of an earthly-kingly entrance and a much more dominating (even militant) reign. Surprise! God would have none of that. From the very beginning, he was destined to save his people through peace and goodwill according to the angels who created the only fanfare.

Humility vs hubris. It’s a conflict we still encounter. We see it in our leaders… even among ecclesiastics. Worst of all, many of us have a similar war raging within us: Am I going to maintain the Christlike characteristic, or will I be sucked into the worldly vortex of pride? We are too often drawn to the spotlight of arrogance, egotism and self-importance, rather than the shadows of servanthood. Service is often trumped by superiority… even among those who call themselves an FOJ.*

During these weeks, we do not gather around a fancy, linen-pillowed cradle; we don’t race to peek through the windows of a golden carriage to get a quick glance at the most-recently-born ruler; we don’t have camera crews posted outside hospital doors to alert us of the birth of the next monarch. No, we gather around straw-filled manger replicas. And I think we all like it better that way.

Once again, God knew what he was doing!

                                                                                                                             * - Follower of Jesus
This carol chanted by solo voice

Thursday, December 4, 2014

“To show God’s love aright…”

Carol: “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” – 15th Century German

How should we show the love of God in the best possible way? That’s a question we all ask ourselves regularly. Sometimes it is a philosophical musing; at other times, it is a question we ask when confronted with a situation: “What should I do? What would Jesus have me do?”

In this carol, it is referring to Mary’s willingness in the half-spent night to bear to us a Savior. But every time we cross this line in our Advent singing, I ponder for a moment how I could be more intentional about showing the compassion of Christ appropriately… in a way that is pleasing to God and beneficial to others.

Here is the prayer my wife Carlita prayed at choir rehearsal last night. I think it gets at this same quandary… and gives us some insight into rightly dividing the spirit of Christ during this season:

Dear God, Father of the Infant Jesus: Thank you for loving us so much that you were born to us and among us to save us. In a season that is so full of joy and anticipation, we nevertheless look around and see broken hearts, hunger, hate, violence, need of every kind. 
When we encounter a need, help us know how to respond. 
When we are prone to a rush to judgment, give us a sense of gentle and compassionate thoughtfulness. 
When we are distracted by the world, turn us again towards Bethlehem. 
This Christmas season may we want only more of you and not merely “more”. 
Shape our worries into prayer. 
Mary and Joseph’s journey to the manger was not an easy one – likewise, may we find our way through the holiday throngs and madness to silent adoration at the cradle of our King. Amen.

She has a “way with words,” and her prayer helps me better understand how to show God’s love aright. Hopefully, also with you.

This carol beautifully sung by one of Baylor’s excellent groups

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

“His coming known shall be by the holy harmony which his coming makes in thee.”

Carol: “Thou Shalt Know Him When He Comes” – Anonymous

This text of unknown origin has been set by many composers through the years. The closing line will be my focus for today.

In the study of harmony, there are two words which define the relationship of two or more notes when sounded together: dissonance and consonance. While you may not know what causes this, you recognize the difference when you hear it. For most of us, consonance is preferred over dissonance. The reality is that we could not distinguish between the two if we had never heard a dissonant harmony. In other words, we recognize consonance (stability) because we relate it to a dissonance (instability) we have heard before.

So it is with life: we can only appreciate the stability of it after we have experienced the instability.

All families, couples, groups live in harmony. Some are only familiar with dissonance because they are constantly bickering, in-fighting, supplanting. Others enjoy a more consonant relationship with supportive, loving interaction. Harmony is sort of like cholesterol: it can be good or bad!

The use of “holy harmony” which is ours when the coming Christ arrives indicates harmony of the most-stable kind – the most consonant, agreeable, calming stacking of notes we can imagine.

During this Advent season, you are going to hear all kinds of harmonies in the music which surrounds you in church, in the concert hall and at Wal-Mart! Fortunately, most Christmas songs include mostly consonant harmonic structures. Let those pleasing, smile-inducing melodies remind you that the holy harmony of Christ can be yours… eventually – even when you think your life couldn’t be any more dissonant.

    Thou shalt know him when he comes,
    not by any din of drums,
    nor his manners, nor his airs,
    nor by anything he wears.

    Thou shalt know him when he comes,
    not by his crown or by his gown.
    But his coming known shall be,
    by the holy harmony
    which his coming makes in thee.

Mark Sirett’s Setting of This Text

(Thanks, Suzanne Matheny for reminding me of this wonderful text.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

“Seraph (and) cherubim…veil their faces to the Presence as with ceaseless voice they cry, ‘Alleluia.’”

“Seraph (and) cherubim…veil their faces to the Presence as with ceaseless voice they cry, ‘Alleluia.’”
Carol: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” – Fifteenth Century

Many of you know that I collect Mickeys, Magi and Angels. I have slowed my angel-collecting since it has become trendy to do so; remember the words rebel and southerner are almost synonymous! Because I have several seraphim and cherubim sitting on shelves around the house, this hymnline may be more significant to me than it is to others.

Today we consider one of the holiest hymnlines ever penned (translated). It is definitely one of those “picture this” phrases. In the Presence, even angels cover their faces and voice their praises. While an obvious allusion to Isaiah’s sixth-chapter experience, these words set to this haunting melody conjure up a warming, hair-on-the-arm-raising reaction (as opposed to arm-raising!). I never sing or hear this without putting myself in their place – standing (or flying) before the very form of the Almighty, now shaped as a human. The melismatic “alleluia” rolls from the lips of the winged messengers, and I have no recourse but to join them… and my mortal silence is broken.

Fernando Ortego Sings This Carol

I love Cynthia Clawson’s version of this, but can’t find it online to share with you. Visit and buy the CAROLSINGER album!!!

Monday, December 1, 2014

“Hope of all the earth thou art. Dear desire of ev’ry nation…”

Carol: “Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus” – Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
Common Tune: HYFRYDOL

Disclaimer: I think I used all my favorite Advent/Christmas Carol hymnlines last year! Now I’m having to dig in for some others. That means I may be into less-familiar territory, so bear with me.

If you attend a church that still sings hymns, you might well have sung this Advent carol yesterday. It’s one of those that comes up once a year, usually on the first Sunday of Advent… which in many congregations is the day the “hope” candle is lighted.

This mash-up of two lines from Wesley approaches the hope subject from two sides. On the one hand Messiah is reon.” Similar, but not exactly the same.

As Christian people, we have a deep and abiding hope which is more akin to confidence than to some event or object we want will happen or come our way. During this season of anticipation, we start with the word “hope” because it looks forward; for believers, we don’t “wish” for what might happen in the future; we are confident that it will happen. Our hope is in Christ Jesus, as Paul says consistently in the epistles. That blessed assurance is ours.

Desire is something else altogether. This half of my mash-up is the state in which the yet-to-know-salvation nations find themselves – those peoples who yet await the arrival of a Messiah… a Savior. Almost every time explorers have uncovered a new people-group (tribe), they have found that they await some god-like redeemer. While their descriptors may vary, the Christ of Christmas may well be exactly what they’re waiting for – the desire of every nation.

Hope IS a state of looking forward. Absolutely. We who have already known the joy of the manger, the tragedy of the cross and the mystery of the resurrection can be SURE… sure enough to expose the desiring nature of all humanity to the beauty of that in which we are confident: the Lord Jesus Christ.

A Celtic Setting

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)

Hymnlines - Hemlines: Get it?! :)